Even cretins can have their mystical side

Click to follow
The Independent Online

So 75 per cent of persons under 24 - if you can call a person under 24 a person - wouldn't know the deputy prime minister if he knocked them down in one of his Jags, whereas all persons under 24 can tell you who won Big Brother, what his percentage of the popular vote was, and what each of the other contestants was wearing on the night of his or her eviction. The source of this information, should you care to verify it, is Whitaker's Almanack. We are a nation of cretins, is the sum of its findings.

What an almanac is doing carrying out surveys of the nation's cretinousness, when it could have asked me for half the money, I do not know. I always thought the job of an almanac was to warn you of a penumbral lunar eclipse so that you could get the sheep in. But there you are: once I had it to myself - now everybody wants to be in on the Jeremiah act.

And we should be grateful to Whitaker's, at least, for alerting us to the dangers of passive celebrity-watching. Like smoking, it not only affects the health of people who do not themselves watch - as, for instance, by making them curious about EastEnders when they have never seen it - but, more grievously, endangers the foetus in the womb. Recent studies suggest that more than 60 per cent of babies delivered in the north of England show signs of having heard of Kylie Minogue before they were born.

Would it be any better if they'd heard of John Prescott? Unless they happen to be Prescott's grandchildren, I think not. Whatever Whitaker's says, there is no useful division to be made, to my mind, between celebrity culture and current affairs. You are no more a cretin for being absorbed in the one than in the other. They are both what you find on the telly and in the papers, on the same page and often on the same programme. Both are the froth of life, not life itself. The fireworks, not the gunpowder. The accidental phenomena, not the meaning. The illusion, not the reality.

It would do us no harm - celebrity junkie and current affairs junkie alike - to turn mystical awhile. I don't mean Carole Caplin New Bond Street, or Madonna costume-Kabbala mystical; I mean mystical in the sense of not pursuing whatever glitters at the peripheries of our eye or dins loudly in our ear, visionary gleam mystical, attending to the still sad music, telling what's true from what isn't, mystical in that you would rather penetrate the hubbub than join it.

Wordly mysticism is what I'm talking about. Of the sort practised by the poet Blake, whose wife routinely informed visitors to their cottage that her husband was not available just this minute, as he was in Paradise. Down-to-earth mysticism, as in "I saw eternity the other night" ... just by the by, and while we're talking, and nothing flattering to the self implied. And all right, if you like, with maybe more than a suggestion of John Donne's intellectual rigour thrown in - "On a huge hill,/Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will/Reach her, about must and about must go." Where what's godly are not the golden gates, but the mind's endeavours.

I prefer the hill-climbing analogy anyway, though I have never climbed an actual hill myself, to the immersion in watery illumination favoured by Melville in that luminous masterpiece Moby Dick. It's Pip the timorous ship-keeper I'm thinking of, falling overboard the Pequod and while he's down there seeing "God's foot upon the treadle of the loom", as a consequence of which he re-emerges barking mad, but barking mad only in the wordly interpretation of the phrase, for "man's insanity is heaven's sense". As penetrations of the mysteries of the deep go, they don't get more exquisite than this.

But it's hooey. Prevaricate with sanity and you come up with the concept of the Holy Fool. And Holy Fools are never anything but hooey. Not least as they presuppose the accidental coming upon wisdom, whereas we know you have to labour up and around that hill.

The other reason not to prevaricate with sanity or sell it short is to thwart the John Humphrys juggernaut - not the man personally, to whom I don't object, but the profession he represents. Though I do not listen to the Today programme myself; I happen to live with someone who does, and thus passively absorb it. Last week I passively absorbed Humphrys tripping over his own compunctions as is always the way when he has to fill out the dying seconds of Today with a subject loosely associated with art rather than politics.

This time (like every other time), Art and Madness. Doesn't the history of, um, art teach us, Humphrys wondered, whether, em, "most artists, certainly very many artists, have a bit of madness about them... I'm hesitating to use the word... I'm not using it in a disrespectful sense... they've, er, all been a bit strange, haven't they?"

All been a bit strange. There you have it in a nutshell. The blind, self-congratulating arrogance of the current-affairs imagination, except that it isn't what you can call an imagination. The programme contained conversation with a postman who wouldn't post, cadaverous comments from Norman Tebbit, a report on share-dealing in Moscow, and discussion of the meaning of the phrase "bell-end". Yet no sooner did we get to art than it was looneysville. Tebbit, the Evil Empire, post office, bell-end - sane; art - barking.

There is no helping them. They are lost in the hubbub.

That it would give current affairsers a much-needed break to fall overboard the Pequod and behold "the strange shapes of the unwarped primal world" I do not doubt. Though since they natter and gibber already, I think hill-walking would be the better option.